In recent weeks, people from various backgrounds have expressed concern about using the mobile application COVI to help combat COVID-19. Encroachment on individual freedoms, distrust of artificial intelligence and fear of entering an era of mass surveillance are among the main issues that have been raised. We understand these concerns.
COVI was developed in line with the strictest ethical rules. Its board of directors is independent from the application’s developer and members do not receive any compensation. The application does not have any commercial component and is not aimed at making a profit. The project is transparent (see www.covicanada.org) and all data that the application collects is anonymous and will be destroyed once the pandemic is over. Two of Canada’s leading legal experts will ensure the integrity of the entire process: Ms. Louise Arbour is the Honorary Chair of COVI Canada, a not-for-profit organization; and Ms. Louise Otis chairs the organization’s board of directors.
A new reality
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world on its head. Faced with a new and potentially deadly virus, our governments acted with a degree of severity that is exceptional in peacetime. To prevent the spread of the virus, they instructed citizens to stay home, closed schools, halted all non-essential economic activity and prohibited visits to seniors’ residences. These extreme measures to curtail our freedoms have saved lives. However, they have also resulted in economic and social harm, despite unprecedented government assistance measures.
Avoiding a return to lockdown
The pandemic now appears to be under control, although the situation remains fragile. In Quebec, elsewhere in Canada and in many regions of the world, governments have begun lifting lockdown measures. But the invisible enemy still lurks out there, since there is still no vaccine or cure. The risk of a second wave remains very real. Any uncontrolled outbreak would result in a new lockdown. We have moved beyond the pandemic’s acute phase to the daily management of the threat.
An application for our times
We face restrictions that are required for our safety. We face a virus that is still circulating and killing people. It is these unprecedented circumstances that make an application like COVI Canada so relevant. This is not a normal solution to a normal problem. It is an exceptional way to respond to an exceptional situation.
The COVI application was designed by experts in epidemiology, medicine, psychology and artificial intelligence, all brought together by Mila, the Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute. By installing COVI on your smartphone and answering some brief questions about your health and the coronavirus, you become an anonymous sender and receiver of information. You are also serving the public interest.
The tracing features let you know if you have been near someone who is more or less contagious, while the artificial intelligence features inform you of your risk level, give advice on what to do, and provide information to public health authorities about the spread of the virus in your neighbourhood.
The technology allows for a “predictive” application. This means that public health officials, who are the only recipients of the information collected, can know the most likely locations of an outbreak in advance and plan an appropriate response. This preventive feature serves as an important tool for preventing outbreaks.
COVI provides a way to manage the threat and avoid a new lockdown. In these unprecedented circumstances, this application offers a means to regain a measure of freedom.
Valérie Pisano, President and CEO of Mila
Yoshua Bengio, Founder and Scientific Director of Mila, Professor at the Université de Montréal